WASHINGTON >> House Republicans passed roughly 60 bills over the past six years dismembering President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Other than minor tweaks, they knew the measures would go nowhere because the Democrat still lived in the White House.
With a bill that counted Friday, they choked. It was an epic, damaging, self-inflicted collapse that smothered the GOP effort.
“We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” a flustered Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters after abruptly yanking the legislation off the House floor to avert a certain defeat. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to repeal this law.”
The measure would have erased much of Obama’s 2010 law, eliminating its unpopular requirement that people buy coverage, ending its Medicaid expansion and trimming federal assistance to people to help pay medical bills. It represented the culmination of seven years of unsuccessful GOP attempts to craft a replacement bill the party could rally behind — a unity that ended up eluding them.
With President Donald Trump serving alongside a Congress controlled by the GOP, the bill was the party’s first genuine opportunity to repeal Obama’s statute. Ryan shelved it amid defections from centrist Republicans who thought it went too far and conservatives who considered it too weak, plus solid Democratic opposition.
Its rejection was fueled by nonpartisan congressional analysts concluding it would cause 24 million people to lose coverage in a decade and drive up costs for poorer and older people. There was also opposition from doctors, hospitals, consumer groups and AARP.
One problem facing the GOP is repercussions from the party’s voters. For nearly a decade, they’ve heard countless Republican congressional candidates promise to repeal Obama’s statute, a pledge that became a centerpiece of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“It’s a really good question,” Ryan said, asked how Republicans could face constituents after failing to deliver on years of promises. “I wish I had a better answer for you.”
Democrats, loyal defenders of Obama’s law, were literally jumping for joy. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., removed her shoes and took a victory leap while meeting activists outside the Capitol.
Obama’s statute has spread coverage to 20 million people and required insurers to cover numerous services and barred them from refusing policies to the very sick.
Top congressional Republicans conceded the measure’s demise meant it was time to move onto other issues.
Among them was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has spoken repeatedly about how unraveling Obama’s law was a top priority for his chamber. In a statement, he expressed only gloom about the effort’s future.
“Obamacare is failing the American people and I deeply appreciate the efforts of the speaker and the president to keep our promise to repeal and replace it, “McConnell said. “I share their disappointment that this effort came up short.”
Two chief House authors expressed no taste for diving back into the issue.
“D-O-N-E done. This bill is dead,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said Republicans “are moving full speed ahead with President Trump on the first pro-growth tax reform in a generation.”
Conveying some hope was Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, proposed health care legislation that would let states decide to continue Obama’s programs.
“Mr. President, Cassidy-Collins is still an option to fulfill your promise to repeal and replace #Obamacare,” Cassidy tweeted Friday.
But there was no easy path ahead. Retooling America’s health care system — it comprises one-sixth of the nation’s economy — is a multi-tiered puzzle.
On the economic side, it involves refashioning how providers, patients and federal programs should interact. And a political balance must be struck between conservatives eager to erase Obama’s law and push the system toward a free-market approach, and GOP moderates wary that would strip coverage from some voters and drive up out-of-pocket costs for others.
Earlier this month, Ryan thought he would find that balance.
“We’ll have 218 (votes) when this thing comes to the floor, I can guarantee you that,” he said, referring to the House majority usually needed to pass legislation.
Ironically, the outcome hewed more closely to a prediction by Ryan’s predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Boehner was forced out of office in 2015 largely by the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, the same group whose opposition was largely responsible for the crumpling of the GOP bill on Friday.
Boehner said last month that while Republicans would fix some problems of Obama’s law, a repeal and replacement is “not going to happen.”
He added, “Republicans never ever agree on health care.”